The Mouse That Roared

Robert Scheer, whose nationally-syndicated column appears weekly in The Times, is a contributing editor to The Nation. He is working on a book about the Wen Ho Lee case

This could have been an important book. Daniel Ellsberg performed an uncommonly heroic act when, in 1971, he released the Pentagon Papers--the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War--to an American public that was even then sacrificing its young as well as a significant portion of the population of Vietnam. The Pentagon Papers, an internal Pentagon study commissioned by then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and written by scholars with access to a massive trove of historical documents, still constitute the most complete and insightful view of how the U.S. came to be involved in a brutish and failed war in a small country of no particular strategic significance to the U.S. McNamara intended the study to be kept secret until after the war was over, when it would be found useful by scholars. But Ellsberg undermined that agenda by letting the public know what the Pentagon knew when it still mattered.

This was a war that the Pentagon Papers proved was always devoid of common sense. Just how misguided that effort was only became clear, beyond the point of rational debate, when Ellsberg, a Rand Corp. scholar at the time, turned over copies of the Pentagon Papers to members of Congress and to leading news organizations.

The Nixon administration subsequently failed in its efforts to use the courts to block publication by the New York Times and the Washington Post. Still, Richard Nixon sought to blunt the effect of the report by smearing Ellsberg’s reputation.


Nixon insiders, particularly Henry Kissinger, who had been a colleague of Ellsberg’s at Harvard, became obsessed with Ellsberg. Attempts were made, including breaking into Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, to find incriminating evidence against the man. Thus was born the infamous “plumbers” unit to plug security leaks, which botched the Watergate burglary and precipitated Nixon’s downfall.

As it turns out, the Nixon burglars found nothing of interest on Ellsberg in their break-in, and it remained for this unauthorized biography to dig up the dirt on Ellsberg’s unconventional sex life. It offers nothing truly startling in the context of the 1960s: some multiple-partner exchanges and the adroit use of mirrors in the bedroom. Unfortunately, the failed hunt for even more dirt seems to have consumed much of Tom Wells’ years of effort.

If this search for the prurient is intended to explain why Ellsberg emerged as the only person with access to the papers to dare turn them over to the public, it fails. Surely there were others in the chain of command with at least as lusty a libido who did not make the papers available.

“Wild Man” also dodges the question: Did Ellsberg perform an important public service in informing the citizens as to the folly of a war waged in their name? Wells takes a startlingly contradictory approach to the value of the papers: On the one hand, they are described as the greatest trove of secrets ever turned over and, on the other hand, dismissed as stuff we all knew to be true anyway.

Both positions are false. There were no national security secrets in the published report that endangered the lives of operatives or weakened the national security position of the United States. What publication of the papers did establish, and the reason politicians complicit in the war wanted to suppress them, is that they undercut the rationalizations of four administrations responsible for involving us in Vietnam. More to the point of Nixon’s hysteria, once having read the Pentagon Papers, no one would find it possible to justify his administration’s escalation of the war into North Vietnam and Cambodia.

The Pentagon Papers confirmed what critics of the war suspected but could not prove to the majority that supported the war. Although Wells asserts that the public knew all this, those urging a pullout from Vietnam were still in the minority at the time of the Pentagon Papers’ publication: The documents significantly strengthened the hand of the critics, who were privy for the first time to the essential facts of the U.S. involvement. An example would be the truth about the second Gulf of Tonkin attack, which justified Congress’ passing of a resolution that LBJ interpreted as a declaration of war. The alleged attack by North Korean PT boats on U.S. ships never occurred, but neither the public nor even the senators knew it at the time, and certainly it is information that is required for intelligent decision-making in a democratic society. Why Ellsberg was alone among those with access to the Pentagon Papers in understanding the right of the public to this information is the important question that goes unexplored here.


The study, completed in the last year of the Johnson administration, systematically shreds all of the rationalizations of U.S. involvement, beginning with the most advertised lie: that we were there merely to aid the independent country of South Vietnam, which was being threatened by North Vietnam and its communist allies. The reality demonstrated by the study is that the existence of two Vietnams was an artificial construct of U.S. policy, born of the decision to ignore the Geneva Accords, which settled the French Indochina war in 1954 and which called for elections to unite Vietnam two years later.

Instead, the United States installed Ngo Dinh Diem to power in 1955 and used him as our tool for preventing the scheduled elections of 1956. The Pentagon Papers make unmistakably clear that Washington feared that Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the forces against the French and a communist, would win a fair election. What a travesty; the U.S. plucked Diem from a Catholic seminary in New Jersey, where he was a recluse, and appointed him president of South Vietnam as a means of advancing democracy. Our CIA trained Diem’s secret police and army, wrote his constitution and national anthem and generally constructed the trappings of leadership for a U.S. puppet whom we attempted to sell to the world as the George Washington of his country.

The sad denouement of that fabrication came less than a decade later. The autocratic Diem and his family had become an inconvenience to the U.S. effort, and he was deposed in a coup with the connivance of our CIA. Diem and his brother were left to scurry through the sewers of Saigon, attempting to find the safe passage of which the U.S. ambassador had assured them only hours before, in perhaps the most pathetic scene of the entire sordid Vietnam drama. They instead were assassinated by their own troops, and with “George Washington” dead, the U.S. had to play a more frontal role in the conceptualization and defense of South Vietnam.

Unfortunately, one does not learn of that sequence of events--or anything else of substance about the Pentagon Papers--in “Wild Man,” because Wells is convinced that the papers are not the story--that indeed we already knew it all. Yet the claim is made throughout that Ellsberg betrayed U.S. security on a scale grander then that of any other culprit. The Pentagon Papers are referred to repeatedly as “a top-secret history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam,” without even a suggestion that the classification might have been intended solely to hide embarrassing truths.

To grasp the indispensable insight that the Pentagon Papers provide for the war, one need look to other sources than this work. There is such scant reference to the content of the study in this book as to render it worthless as a guide. The best source is the Pentagon Papers themselves, which still make for fascinating reading.

“Wild Man” would have been worth reading had it provided an insight into why Ellsberg was willing to break ranks and let us in on the truth. But Wells is so obsessed in his drive to denigrate Ellsberg that he also ends up denigrating the inestimably worthwhile civic act that he performed.


According to Wells, Ellsberg’s motive in releasing the papers was personality-driven; Wells describes Ellsberg as a “volatile, narcissistic loner with a voracious sexual appetite, a highly developed intelligence, and most importantly, the overwhelming need to take center stage in the pageant known as America”--a description that would easily fit Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger, Lyndon Johnson and just about every other high-profile person connected with the war. But this ignores the question: Why did it remain to Ellsberg and his accomplice, Tony Russo, barely noticed in this account, to do the right thing and let the American people in on the truth?

The odd thing here is that many others, including Les Gelb, the Pentagon Papers’ principal author, are quoted as disapproving of Ellsberg’s action without ever being challenged about why they didn’t do the same thing--the right thing. Were they even thinking about the principles of accountability established at the Nuremberg trials? Or the possibility that U.S. officials might also be guilty of war crimes?

If it is Ellsberg’s narcissism, defined by Wells as “self-involvement, a grandiose sense of self, insecurity, and an inordinate need for approbation and admiration from others” that caused him to break ranks and release the papers, one wonders why it took so long, given that this same narcissist had long been a hawk much in favor of the war.

This biography of Ellsberg delineates an upbringing that seems rather typical for a future intellectual: a doting mother who insisted on music lessons and good grades, competitiveness in school and the ability to attract the attention of important professors. Ellsberg was as ambitious as his peers who became successful, and his career path was also quite routine.

Ellsberg spent most of his first four decades going along to get along, and there is a mystery here: Why did he break ranks? The answer that Ellsberg provides on the occasions when his biographer permits him to talk is far more compelling than the biographer’s primitive psychoanalyzing.

Ellsberg, like many of those who have witnessed war up close, had simply seen enough. He spent years “in country” as a super-hawk who believed that the war was necessary, moral and winnable. But eventually he had just seen through too many of the contradictions and lies, and his convictions wavered.


Ellsberg’s evolving skepticism about the war, which he had been associated with longer than most advisors, was given a framework for outrage in the Pentagon Papers. He had, with the best of them, attempted to rationalize that the war was necessary for national security, but the reality exposed in the Pentagon Papers was quite the opposite. The bungling descent into an unnecessary mess was laid out with startling clarity, and Ellsberg simply bolted upright upon receiving the news.

Others had similar experiences but kept them to themselves, for there was no going back into the safe world of the defense intellectual once one broke ranks. When Ellsberg rebelled, he gave up his security clearances, job opportunities, basis of expertise, insider’s know-how and all of the other accruements of being a national security player. He was, after the papers’ publication, a social outlaw, hanging out with the German Greens, being arrested in anti-nuke demonstrations and helping to spark those apparently forlorn but surprisingly successful grass-roots movements against the military-industrial complex throughout the world.

His future was the exact opposite of McNamara’s. Although McNamara had also seen the truth, he kept it to himself for some three decades while he went on to serve as head of the World Bank and in other respectable establishment posts. As Wells writes, by way of explaining the decision to commission the Pentagon Papers study: “McNamara explained later that he wanted scholars to understand what had gone wrong in Vietnam in order to prevent similar mistakes in the future.”

Consider the arrogance of that stance: Scholars, presumably at a safe distance from the historical moment, properly removed from the smell of death and destruction that McNamara, more than anyone else, had ordered, could then contemplate McNamara’s folly. This is the bloodless pursuit of truth, an exercise in self-protection that is shocking in its distance from the pain induced. Perhaps that is why the study was done with future scholars in mind: so that it would be too late for public accountability.

One exchange that I find particularly odd in this context was between Ellsberg and Konrad Kellen, a Rand scholar who was known to be against the war but ever so respectfully and quietly so. Wells reports a conversation in which Ellsberg tells Kellen that “he would be willing to go to jail.” The response from Kellen, as quoted by Wells: “I wouldn’t even think of it,” replied Kellen, who had a wife and two children. “I come from Nazi Germany.”

Weren’t there people in Nazi Germany who had wives and children but who would have still been expected to speak up? Or is the lesson to be learned from that experience that silence in the face of evil is somehow golden?


The possibility that they were complicit in war crimes never seems to have haunted the men who forced the Vietnam War upon the world. Instead, the moral outrage recounted in this volume is exclusively directed against Ellsberg for daring to break ranks with his colleagues at Rand. Much sorrow is expressed here by Rand colleagues over the discomfort that Ellsberg’s release of the papers is said to have brought Rand Director Harry Rowen. As another Rand scholar, Guy Paulker, put it: “If he [Ellsberg] had taken a knife and stabbed it in Rowen’s back, he couldn’t have done much more than what he did with the Pentagon Papers.”

Let’s talk priorities. Rand was a club of defense intellectuals living off the Air Force dole while the planes of the Air Force were carpet-bombing all life below in Vietnam. Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, which told the American people for the first time, officially and unequivocally, that such barbarism was in no manner justified by U.S. security interests. Yet letting the American people in on the truth behind the war crimes is somehow a much more egregious affront to morality than the wanton bombing without purpose that Rand helped coordinate.

To the Hague with the bunch of them--Ellsberg excepted.